Why we are failing children of prisoners in higher education

University admissions must make children of prisoners a specific target group in their widening participation work, says Pippa Bryant

Pippa Bryant is the Widening Participation Project Coordinator at University of Cambridge

When I first started working in widening participation, I was part of a discussion regarding target groups. I asked about the participation in higher education of children of prisoners – and I was surprised to learn that this group wasn’t considered a target.

It seemed like an obvious marker of disadvantage to me.

My grandfather was in and out of prison for his children’s entire childhood. This has had lifelong impacts for them – and none starker than their educational outcomes. And there have also been intergenerational impacts for his grandchildren.

Being the child of an imprisoned person brings with it a particular set of challenges. Children of prisoners are a highly vulnerable group with multiple risk factors for adverse outcomes. There have been studies on the outcomes of children of prisoners but it is not a well-researched area, especially in terms of educational outcomes.

From the research that does exist, there is evidence that, compared to the student body as a whole, their educational outcomes suffer, they are more likely to have mental health problems, and partake in drug abuse, and in anti-social or illegal activity.

One of the few organisations to work with the children of prisoners is Barnardo’s. They state:

These children are often left in the shadows, their needs forgotten, and this can have devastating impacts. Despite their situation, they are locked out of the support they need to give them a better chance in life.

Double disadvantages

It is estimated that there are approximately 312,000 children of current prisoners. However, there are no mechanisms in place to recognise children of prisoners as a distinct group – no markers within existing standard data collection.

This means schools and local authorities are not automatically notified so the onus is on the children’s family to self-declare. Due to the current social stigma surrounding prison sentences, these disclosures may be rare.

Children of prisoners, as a group, intersect with already well-established underrepresented groups in higher education. Black people make up 13 per cent of the prison population, whereas they only represent 3 per cent of the general population. This overrepresentation in the prison population suggests that the child of a black parent is disproportionately more likely to be affected by parental imprisonment.

Poor parental educational attainment is another clear intersection. The Prison Education Statistics (2019-2020) show that more than half of prisoners who undertook initial sessions in Maths and English did not meet GCSE-level standards.

A 2005 government report highlighted the need for educational intervention for imprisoned parents to try to reduce risk factors for their children, such as poor school performance, and children becoming offenders themselves.

While prisoner education is incredibly important and addressed in its own right, university admissions must also make children of prisoners a specific target group in their widening participation work.

Steps to take

Admissions and widening participation teams do not need to wait for further research to take positive steps towards supporting this marginalised group. By incorporating the following steps into their action plans, universities would create systems to support children of prisoners.

  • Add “being the child of a prisoner” to the list of relevant examples of educational disruptions in applications. This would alleviate some of the stigma facing these children as it is an explicit acknowledgement of their circumstance. This should also be done by widening participation practitioners when they collect information about the students partaking in their outreach work.
  • UCAS should also give children of prisoners the option to self-declare their status on applications. Not only would this be useful for institutions looking to consider their applications contextually and give additional consideration in the admissions process but would also help us collate the number of children of prisoner applicants, and trends in their applications. Collecting this information sensitively, and with the full consent of the applicants, would be a step in the right direction for institutions understanding the specific educational disadvantages of this marginalised group.
  • Institutions should look to their own student body to capture the voice of children of prisoners. This would rely on students being willing to self-declare and talk about their experiences, which may be an obstacle in itself. Therefore, this undertaking would require the utmost sensitivity, alongside a clear plan of support for students who do come forward.
  • In England and Wales, institutions could partner with organisations such as

    the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders (NICCO) which works to support children of prisoners, including hosting a Directory of Services on its website.

Understanding the lived experience of the children of prisoners who are applying to, or have reached, higher education would be a hugely positive step in understanding how we can support this hidden group and their specific needs. There may not be substantial advice specifically aimed at widening participation practitioners and institutions as to how they can best support this group but it is clear that they do need our support.

Any institution serious about widening participation will understand that it is vital that we take both the steps to contribute to the missing data and, perhaps more importantly, formulate and implement support for this otherwise neglected group.

One response to “Why we are failing children of prisoners in higher education

  1. Interesting that the article argues that Universities are failing, as opposed to schools or social services or community groups or individuals failing.

    A similar case could be made for other groups who are also rarely highlighted. For example, children of armed services personnel:

    https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/effective-practice/children-from-military-families/

    And then there is the effect of crime itself on children’s educational attainment, which is not confined to the children of offenders:

    https://www.res.org.uk/resources-page/the-impact-of-local-crime-on-children-evidence-from-pupils-achievements-in-london.html

    One take-away is to guard against outreach and access strategies being driven by the most vocal lobbies, recognising that in terms of an ability to influence policy some disadvantaged groups are better situated than others.

    On the link to race, the sentencing outcomes ought to be borne in mind. In 2020, for England and Wales, all ethnic groups had broadly the same sentencing outcomes. For example:

    35% immediate custody for white offenders versus 33% for black offenders
    18% suspended sentence versus 14%
    20% community service versus 20%
    16% fine versus 22%
    7% other versus 8%

    This indicates that to change the composition of the prison population, the causes of crime need to be addressed because sentencing patterns have largely converged.

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